By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
NASHVILLE — You can scratch another name off the long list of potential hitters that the Seattle Mariners are interested in acquiring for the 2013 season. Free agent first baseman/catcher/designated hitter Mike Napoli agreed to terms with the Boston Red Sox on a three-year, $39 million contract.
Napoli had appeared to narrow his list of suitors to the Mariners and Red Sox. He visited Seattle just before Thanksgiving, but ultimately settled on going to Boston. Some baseball insiders believe Napoli used the Mariners as leverage to sign with the Red Sox — the place he ultimately wanted to go.
“We liked Napoli,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “Congratulations to him on his contract and to Boston for getting him. I think that Napoli brought things to the table that we liked. He’s an offensive guy, a right-handed guy, a veteran guy. But, he’s no longer available.”
Even with Napoli gone, the names of hitters that the Mariners are interested in continue to swirl around the Gaylord Convention Center.
The Mariners have been linked to free agents Nick Swisher, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Ludwick and Cody Ross, as well as discussing possible trades for Royals designated hitter Billy Butler, and former Mariners Shin Soo-Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera of the Indians and Michael Morse of the Nationals.
“We’ve had lot of talks with other teams and with agents,” Zduriencik said.
Of course, Zduriencik wouldn’t elaborate on those talks.
The possibility of acquiring Butler is certainly an interesting one. Back in 2007, the Royals tried to trade a then-unproven Butler straight across to Seattle for Yuniesky Betancourt. But then-general manager Bill Bavasi passed on the offer.
Butler has slowly grown into solid right-handed hitter. This past season, he hit .313 with 29 homers and 107 RBI and an .858 OPS. Those numbers came playing half of his games at Kaufman Stadium in KC — a place that’s almost as unfriendly to hitters as Safeco Field.
Why would the Royals want to get rid of him? For two reasons — they are desperate for pitching and he’s a relatively expensive option to have at designated hitter.
Kansas City’s starting pitching is atrocious. Their top pitchers in the minor leagues are a year or two away with two of them coming off elbows surgery. They went out acquired Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana already this season to address the need. Even then, they could still use more help. The Mariners do have a surplus of young pitching to offer in Erasmo Ramirez or any of the “Big Three” — Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. The Royals even scouted Paxton in the Arizona Fall League.
Butler is owed a fair amount of money — $16 million over the next two seasons — and keeping him for a third could cost anywhere from $12.5 million and up to $14 million on a club option based on performance.
But the bigger question would be where would Butler play with the Mariners? He is for all intents and purposes a designated hitter. He can play first base and appeared in 20 games there last season, but he is somewhat of a liability defensively. So how would it work with catchers Jesus Montero and John Jaso. They are two of the Mariners’ best returning hitters. And manager Eric Wedge used the designated hitter spot to get both at-bats.
Still, Zduriencik said they have enough roster flexibility to make it work. And he mentioned that the ability to add a hitter would fit in the outfield or a first base/designated hitter spot.
“You just have to figure out a player fits,” Zduriencik said. “There’s no secret to it.”
Realistically, the Royals may value Ramirez more than the prospects because of major league success and experience. But the Mariners would likely have to give up more, likely a player like Nick Franklin. Once thought to be the shortstop of the future, Franklin is looking more like a second baseman at the major league level because of questions about his arm strength and range. He played second base mostly in the Arizona Fall League. The Royals need a second baseman. Their prospect – Johnny Giavotella – was supposed to be their second baseman of the future. But he has failed to hit in two different call-ups.
While it would hurt to lose quality young players, Zduriencik knows it’s a consequence of getting big league help.
“No one is an untouchable,” Zduriencik said. “If you look at a scenario of where our weaknesses are and you can make it a strength, I think that’s something you have to entertain. You can’t sit here and say I’m not going to move anyone. That would be foolish. You can’t shut the door on an opportunity to improve your club for the short term or the long term.”
Catching a catcher
Zduriencik said the Mariners will look at catching options for next season. While Montero and Jaso both progressed, the need for a third catcher could be necessary if either were to DH as much as they did last season.
“Right now, we’ll have Montero and Jaso catch,” Zduriencik said. “Both guys have their skill set they bring to the table. Neither guy is what you would call a defensive receiver. Both of them are offensive catchers. We’ll have our ears open certainly to see how the right type of catcher would fit. You don’t want to take away their ABs right now just for a defensive catcher. Our needs are, quite frankly, offense. But I do think we have to address a defensive possibility if it exists.”
If the Mariners do get a catcher, it would likely be a veteran, who is solid defensively and is comfortable as a backup.
Zunino leads Mariners top prospects
Baseball America announced its list of the Mariners’ Top 10 prospects for the 2013 season. Leading the list is catcher Mike Zunino, who was taken with third overall pick of last year’s draft. Zunino hit .360 (58-for-161) with 35 runs scored, 14 doubles, 13 home runs and 43 RBI in 44 games combined between Class A Everett and Double A Jackson.
Montero was the top rated prospect going into last season. For the second straight year, hard-throwing right-hander Taijuan Walker was the No.2 prospect in the organization. Walker posted a 7-10 record with a 4.69 ERA in 25 starts. He struck out 118 hitters and walked 50 in 126 2/3 innings pitched. Walker went winless in his last seven starts with a 0-5 record. Besides Walker, Hultzen, Paxton and Franklin were on the list for the second straight season.